Plenty still at stake for Rams, Tigers in Thursday kickoff

Before the season, the placement of tonight's Region 8-AAAAAA clash between Grayson and Archer -- in the season's penultimate week and placed on a Thursday for local broadcast on WSB's sister cable station -- seemed strategic.

After all, the Rams are the defending state champions, while the up-and-coming Tigers were coming off their first playoff appearance last season.

But while there is still plenty on the line when the two teams square off tonight at 7:30 at Archer Community Stadium, the nature of the stakes are a little different from what many might have first envisioned.

For Archer (6-3, 4-3), which is coming of a disappointing 42-14 loss to South Gwinnett, tonight's game is simply a battle for survival, with the Tigers needing a win -- and then a lot of help next week -- to still have a chance for a playoff berth.

"As far as our playoff hopes are concerned, our backs are against the wall," Archer coach Andy Dyer said. "(Grayson is) defending state champions for a reason. So, we have a tall task ahead of us. I told (the players) we've got to have a short memory and move on to the next task. There's nothing we can do about (last week)."

While Archer's situation is desperate, No. 5 state-ranked Grayson (7-1, 5-1) suddenly finds itself with a window of opportunity as wide open as it has been since before an upset loss to Parkview in its region opener in September.

With the Panthers' loss to Central Gwinnett last week throwing the top of the region race into a four-way tie with Grayson, Brookwood and South Gwinnett, the Rams now have a very real opportunity to reclaim the region's No. 1 playoff seed, and perhaps even the region title outright.

But right now, Grayson coach Mickey Conn said his team's focus is simply on maintaining the level of play it has displayed since that early-season loss -- particularly in their last outing, an impressive 41-0 rout of South Gwinnett two weeks ago.

"The kids are going to play hard," Conn said. "We've played with a lot of passion and desire and speed and a lot of guys making plays. I think Zach Barnes had three sacks (against South). The week before, Marquise Motley had thre sacks (against Berkmar). (Ryan) Carter had a big game. (Robert) Nkemdiche scored four touchdowns on offense (against South). It just seems like the closer we get to the playoffs, and the bigger the game, the more excited our players get."

That's not good news for a team in Archer's situation, particularly with the Tigers' biggest strength being their balanced, ball-control offense.

The task to execute that gameplan is a huge one against a Grayson defense that has not allowed a point since the fourth quarter of its win over Shiloh on Sept. 28 -- a stretch spanning three straight games.

But as important as controlling the ball behind the running of Sean Fowler (160 car., 1,037 yds., 10 TDs) and passing of Gabe Tiller (80-149-7, 1,114 yds., 5 TDs) is, Dyer says the most important thing for his offense will be to not set up short-field opportunities for Grayson.

That was a major problem for the Tigers last week against South, especially during a second half in which the the Comets broke open a close game, and had four scoring drives that started inside the Archer 34-yard line -- including two inside the 10.

"You've got to win field position, especially against a team like Grayson because they're so good defensively," Dyer said. "When you have three boo-boos like that, ... we took ourselves out of the ball game very quickly."

Grayson, meanwhile, has a similar ball-control gameplan it wasn't to execute offensively behind a stable of four backs with at least 330 yards or more on the season -- led by Wayne Gallman's 682.

But Conn believes the Rams will have their work cut out for them against an Archer that has been quite formidable -- last week's point total by South notwithstanding -- behind Florida-committed lineman Antonio Riles (26 tackles, two sacks) and linebacker Duane Lee (90 tackles, 10 sacks) and Keith Radford (82 tackles, 1 sacks).

"They have some good size up front," Conn said of Archer. "They run the ball well with their ... running backs and have good skill kids (on offense), and defensively, they've got a lot of talent and are really big up front. Andy and his staff have done a phenomenal job with that program."